Can a cupcake have a personality without having a face painted on it? What about a sink, a pink package, or a pickle tag? Objects with innate character include a flowery couch left by the curb, a box of mosses, major hairdos, and a seven-layer chocolate cake with a cherry on top. Welcome to Maira Kalman's world. If you aren't familiar with her work, she is an artist and writer extraordinaire and a hilarious one.
The first book of hers I ever owned, the children's book, Sayonara Mrs. Kackleman became a favorite in our family. Our parting words to each other when we leave the house continue to be, "Come back soon. Bring back presents!" In this book, as with the ones that have followed, she creates a world that seems absurd, but that is normal for her characters.
In her book for grownups, The Principles of Uncertainty, you'll find that her world isn't that far from her characters' world or the childrens' world, after all. She writes, "which leads me to my candy collection. The jewel of the collection is the Cratch bar purchased in Cuba. It sounds like a disease more than a candy treat, and I like to imagine the naming session" (122). A gouache painting of the candy bar appears on the page along with her handwritten text. The candy bar looks like it is going to dance off the page, not because it has tap shoes on, but because the wrapper has personality, the word "Cratch" looks like it is vibrating.
If you don't have a copy of the totemic grammar book, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, only get the one that Kalman illustrated. In one example they compare "He noticed a large stain in the rug that was right in the center" with "He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug" (under Rule 20: Keep related words together). You'll have to see the painting she did to illustrate this for yourself. Perhaps you can already imagine it. She has definitely added her world to Strunk and White's.
After looking through her work—and there was a wonderful exhibit (and catalogue to go with) recently called, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)—you realize that perhaps she is looking for the absurd in daily life. She photographs very specific, sometimes overlooked objects, writes about them, paints them, and makes up stories (or just tells a version of the truth) to link them all together.
So, try looking for the overlooked for inspiration. Look for fun objects, quirky images, and things with an edge.
If you live in Los Angeles, you can see the Maira Kalman exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center through February 13, 2011. In New York, see it at The Jewish Museum, March through July.